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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JOB MARKET : How to Handle the Dreaded Boss From Hell : Coping: Thanks to hard times, the species is proliferating.

They are those outrageous, cruel and even humiliating taskmasters who make lives miserable.

They are the Attila the Huns and Simon Legrees of the business world.

They are the bosses from hell.

Everyone’s had one. From the most powerful leaders to the lowliest shop foreman, employees must put up with the worst. President Richard M. Nixon once lost his cool and shoved press secretary Ronald Ziegler in front of millions of TV viewers. “Obviously, I was humiliated,” Ziegler said later.

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Northrop worker Leocadio Barajas sent his boss to the slammer after he was instructed to falsify tests on a guidance device for a nuclear weapons system.

Along with economic times, bosses are getting tougher, driven by unrelenting demands for improved performance, according to lawyers, psychologists and human resources experts who say employees are working much harder than years ago and face fewer prospects for promotion.

“There is a lot more gloom and doom in corporations today,” said Mitchell Marks, a psychologist at the human resources firm William M. Mercer Inc. “There was a time when employees could pay their dues and receive a payoff. Now, they are paying their dues and questioning if there is a payoff. It all makes employees and their employers more irritable.”

With fewer rewards, tensions are rising in the workplace, and many bosses are letting it all hang out. Stiff competition and tough deadlines often prompt employers to expect the impossible.

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Barajas said he still shudders when he recalls the day his boss at Northrop, Clarence Gonsalves, ordered him to falsify test results for guidance devices on nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

“Any defect in those bombs could have caused a disaster,” Barajas said. “But he wanted to make the shipment schedule. He would do anything to look good.”

A federal investigation led to a guilty plea by Northrop and a fine of $17 million. Gonsalves was sentenced to three years in prison, and in a related civil suit Northrop agreed to pay an $8-million fine, about $400,000 of which Barajas expects to receive.

(A company spokesman said Gonsalves was fired, and the firm shut down the plant where the crimes occurred.)

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How do you handle a boss who’s making your life miserable?

First, don’t take your boss’s bad behavior personally, Marks advised. If your boss is ill-tempered or making unreasonable demands on your work, “the boss may be acting out his own frustrations.”

“The boss may be getting mad at the fact that he is under tremendous pressure . . . not because he believes you are incompetent,” Marks said. “Maybe you just need to let the boss blow off some steam.”

But if the situation becomes unbearable, “the best thing to do is to confront the boss directly. Sit the boss down. Not in his office where he feels a sense of power, but out of his turf,” the psychologist suggested. “Confront him with his behavior, and indicate that it is affecting your ability to work.”

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If that approach fails, discuss the situation with a human resources representative at the company. Perhaps they’ve heard similar complaints from other employees. Or seek advice from another manager at the same level as your boss.

But complain to your boss’ superiors only as “a last resort,” Marks warned. Going over their heads “automatically puts them on the defensive and leads to a showdown.”

If all else fails? “Look for another job.”

Sexual harassment by a boss can make work particularly unbearable. Take the story of an Anaheim home-duty nurse who claimed that her dying young patient’s father tried to have sex with her.

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Or the Los Angeles waitress who was carrying a tray of food at a nice steak-and-seafood restaurant when her boss came up behind her and lifted her skirt. The experience was so humiliating that she quit.

Even nice supervisors can be oblivious to offensive personal habits, and how do you tell the boss he smells? One secretary complained that her boss was so thoughtless that she came to work with head lice and exposed all her employees to the pesky bugs: “They were hopping all over the office. It was disgusting. We were all very annoyed.”

Much to the chagrin of employees, some bosses have the audacity to make their subordinates cover for their mistakes.

While working as a medical technician in a hospital, one Long Beach woman said a “hysterical physician” ordered her to take blood samples from a dead body to cover his lapse in monitoring the woman’s blood before her death.

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“He shouted at me to do it. I didn’t want to. It was very difficult,” she said. “There was no blood pressure.”

Desiree Kerns said some bosses’ actions can’t be undone. She alleges that, while taping an episode of “Airwolf” in 1985, her boss told her to press a button on a truck to activate a smoke device. The button apparently triggered a powerful napthalene bomb. Said Kerns: “A stunt man and I were engulfed in a fireball.”

The resulting injuries ended her career. Her $10 million lawsuit is still pending. An attorney for the defendants couldn’t be reached for comment.

How do so many difficult, incorrigible people become bosses?

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“Usually, the best technicians get promoted,” noted Edward Gubman, a consultant at the personnel firm Hewitt Associates. “They don’t know the first thing about managing people. All of a sudden they become a boss, and it’s a disaster.”

Gubman’s advice for shaking the boss-from-hell image is for supervisors to “try to stress a notion of partnership with employees. Show how they can contribute, listen to them better and show more flexibility in the way you treat people, in working conditions and compensation.”

Newport Beach attorney Roger H. Schnapp, who specializes in defending lawsuits by employees, said lawyers are seeing a big increase in wrongful-termination claims arising from layoffs and terminations during troubled economic times.

And some of them seem to have been filed by employees from hell. Schnapp estimated that less than 10% of all wrongful-discharge cases filed against employers are valid.

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“Some people like to take one slip and fall and turn it into a big windfall,” he said.

Nonetheless, studies have shown that an employee has an 86% chance of winning in a wrongful-termination case if it goes to a jury, Schnapp said. Since juries are predominantly made up of employees rather than executives, they seem more sympathetic to workers and even lower-echelon supervisors.

Schnapp cited one example in which a male supervisor at an Oklahoma company was fired for exposing himself to female employees and making an insulting remark. A jury decided company honchos punished him too harshly and awarded the man $1 million.

Sure, the employment arena is tough today, acknowledged Marks, the psychologist. “Some of the perks are gone. The days of moving up the ladder are over. There’s employee burnout. And there’s the specter of looking over your shoulder and waiting for the downsizing ax to hit you.”

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But all in all, things aren’t that bad, said Gubman, the human resource consultant. “We don’t have stockades any more,” he observed.


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